Emotions influence people's decision to buy an electric car

Date: 10 September 2014

Introduction: Personal transport accounts for the biggest portion of a family's energy use, and is therefore also the biggest obstacle to securing a more sustainable future. Electric cars could be the solution, but what do families really think about them? Ingrid Moons (University of Antwerp, Faculty of Design Sciences) is investigating.

Our motorised transport system is rapidly using up fossil fuel resources. CO2 emissions contribute significantly to global warming. Fuel combustion produces particulates, which have been shown to cause lung infections and cancer. According to a 2005 study carried out by VITO and sponsored by the European Commission, particulates may be responsible for up to 100 000 deaths and the loss of around 725 000 healthy life years (HLYs) every year. Moons (Department of Marketing) notes: “The electric car seems to offer a whole range of advantages, like more efficient energy use and low emissions of CO2 and particulates. But we still don’t see many electric cars on the road.”

“In order to find out which factors play a role in people’s decision to buy (or not to buy) an electric car, we interviewed two groups of about 1200 respondents with driving licences in 2009 and 2012”, explains Moons. “It emerged that the emotions triggered by electric cars play a more significant role than rational arguments, such as ease of use, price and battery life. Both emotions linked to electric cars specifically and those linked to cars as an overall product category were found to be relevant. As a result, it appears to be crucial to design and position electric cars with emotional appeal.”

Besides emotions related to electric cars in general, the researchers also investigated the influence of emotions triggered by driving specific models.  Moons explains: “Cars provoke three sorts of emotion, related to the way in which the car has an impact on our senses, the driving experience, and the car’s effect on, for example, our self-image.  In particular, it is the positive emotions associated with the consequences of driving an electric car – such as lower running costs and the feeling of contributing to a cleaner environment – which encourage people to buy electric cars. That doesn’t mean we’re willing to sacrifice a great driving experience, however, or an attractive look. These often unconscious processes and the important role that emotions have to play have often been overlooked in traditional research into people’s willingness to buy electric cars.”

The second phase of the research builds on these insights and uses data from 960 respondents to ascertain how emotional and rational perceptions can be made more tangible when creating new campaigns for electric cars. “We investigated how well two electric proposals – one more emotional and one more rational – suited the brand images of Alfa Romeo, BMW, Volvo and Toyota. It is typically thought that a new product should complement the existing brand image. Interestingly, we found that brands which are perceived as more rational (responsible, simple) – such as Volvo and Toyota – look certain to benefit from incorporating an electric car that promises a richer experience. On the other hand, brands that have a more emotional image (tough, aggressive, sentimental) – such as BMW and Alfa Romeo – will see no negative effects in terms of brand image if they add an electric car to their range, but it will be harder for them to rely on emotional appeal when positioning the electric car.”

Another contribution is the research being done into segments of consumers who could be considered ‘early adopters’, groups of people who would be the first users of electric cars and who could therefore play an important role in helping the product infiltrate the market. Unfortunately, consumers’ intentions to use electric cars remain very low across all segments. Moons concludes that the people most willing to use electric cars are “highly educated, innovative men, who identify with values such as adventure, hedonism and benevolence, who are concerned for the environment and act accordingly, and who are above all considered opinion leaders when it comes to cars.”